Orientalist art is selling nicely at global auction houses, and the main buyers are….Arabs. Not terribly surprising, I suppose, given that everyone likes a romanticised depiction of their own history and traditions. For a previous post on this, see here.
Raficq Abdulla, a poet and art writer, was among a number of cultural figures whom the Tate invited to post comments at the exhibit. Rather than letting a superficial relationship between “colonizer” and “colonized” be the sole lens through which we today can understand how British (and other) Orientalists represented their subjects, understandings of Orientalism have become more complex and nuanced, he wrote, “a focus, a module upon which people of different cultures can exchange perspectives and prejudices, becoming more aware of who they are—and who they are not—in a fast globalizing world.”
For the Orientalists, the first signs of renewed appreciation came with the early oil boom of the 1970’s, when the Mathaf Gallery opened in London following the 1975 World of Islam Festival, marking the first specialist venue for the sale of Orientalism since the genre’s demise in the 1930’s. Mathaf was aimed particularly at the new market in the Middle East.
Since then, interest in Orientalist art has been led by the cognoscenti of the cultures depicted—mostly in the Arabian Peninsula, followed by North Africa. “The majority of my sales are still to Arab clients,” says Brian MacDermott, the gallery’s director. Controversy over the genre “has actually fueled a lot of interest,” he says—but not all controversy: “Naturally there’s a desire for accuracy relating to customs and traditions.” Even so, most of the paintings in an exhibition called “Enter the Harem” were bought by clients from the Arab world….
Other Orientalist renderings of daily life in Arab lands tend to show two main settings: cities and deserts. The cities, however, are seemingly “medieval” or “timeless” vernacular scenes that exclude evidence of modernity. These include at times carefully observed traders and craftspeople (of pre-industrial pursuits), as well as the interiors and courtyards of homes, whose overwhelming detail and ornamental excess is rendered with meticulous draftsmanship. In these paintings, the brush lingered on tiles and textiles, carpets and architecture as the artist distilled a stereotypical, often languid atmosphere. But did those painters really paint—or even sketch—en plein air, right in the bazaars, with the flies and dust and hubbub? Some did, but others worked from photographs. Similarly, the interiors of most mosques—Orientalism’s second most popular motif—were off-limits at that time to non-Muslims, which raises more questions of accuracy in the minds of modern viewers and buyers.
The desert imagery draws on fascination with the traditional Bedouin ways in the Sahara and the Arabian desert. Here there are countless affectionate equestrian scenes of horsemen and cameleers watering their mounts, resting with them beneath oasis trees and even enjoying (almost certainly imaginary) dancing maidens. The Italian Orientalists, who depicted such scenes with charm and wit as studio painters, not travelers, even painted the women’s hairstyles and shoes with a noticeably fashionable Italian air! Many a hazy sunset landscape is depicted, and sometimes a legendary city like Petra appears on the skyline. Women are shown collecting water, trailing appealing children. In the “desert action” subgenre, Orientalists painted dramatic fantasias of men galloping on horse or camel across the sands, often to attack a trade caravan or raid a rival tribe’s camp.
Other types of more controversial subjects—such as slave markets and nudity—are being bypassed by today’s buyers. Christie’s Alexandra McMorrow comments tactfully that such subjects are “not seen by our clients as genuine.” Mathaf’s MacDermott says that such work would turn off his clients. As art and culture critic Rana Kabbani notes, “This is someone else’s story; someone else’s Orient.”
And what about the degrading Othering Gaze, Said and all that?
“But if it’s cultural imperialism, why are the majority of buyers Middle Eastern?” retorts MacDermott, whose gallery had its own 2008 exhibition, “The British Orientalists: Eastern Views, Western Eyes.”
At Sotheby’s, Senior Vice President Ali Can Ertug responds by choosing his images carefully. “Certain images of Turkey honor me as a Turk. They are incredibly honoring of our heritage. They are historically important documentation for us because they are scenes we have not recorded, whereas in Europe that’s taken for granted. It’s lovely to have the earliest, sometimes the only, images of things that we have lost—like street-sellers, parts of Istanbul that have burned down, landscapes that have changed so radically, like panoramic views of the Bosporus. I find the Orientalists’ genuine interest flattering and valuable. I presume that people from Damascus and Cairo would be similarly honored.”
The article also notes that all those new museums springing up in the Gulf are important buyers of orientalist art. Figures.
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